How I went to Africa


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Published: August 2nd 2017
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Preface

I’ve wanted to go to Africa ever since I was a little girl. My parents (smartly) refused to get cable TV for most of my childhood, so I was usually glued to documentaries on PBS. My favorites were nature programs, particularly images of life and death on the Serengeti and all the drama of the great migration. Instead of dolls, I played with animal figurines, creating epic sagas with plastic lions and zebras on the front lawn. When I reached adulthood and began traveling, I figured I’d get there eventually. Other than a foray to Morocco with a friend many years ago, it didn’t happen. Then I started working at a university, which, among many other benefits, has generous vacation time. Throw in a great deal on airfare and my mind was made up. Life is short, time to go…

Arrival

We arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in the mid-afternoon. In spite the shuddering fans, the terminal was balmy. No sooner had we piled into the line than the power went out, forcing immigration to a standstill as the officers attempted to reboot the computers. I couldn’t have cared less about the delay; I was just thrilled to be standing in Kenya.

Things were sorted out eventually and we found a reasonably priced taxi to take us to our hotel: The Karen Camp and Hostel. It’s a nice mid-range hotel with a large lawn and downstairs bar. The best part were the three sweet rescue dogs, who, in spite of missing a few limbs, welcomed us with enthusiasm. The hotel is located in the leafy suburb of Karen, surrounded by mansions belonging to wealthy expats and politicians. It’s named after author Karen Blixen who wrote “Out of Africa”. Her house has been turned into a museum, which is a popular Nairobi attraction.

We stayed in Karen for two nights before and after our safari. Mostly, we just relaxed and chatted with some of the colorful local expatriates. We did make it to the famed Giraffe Center. It’s small but worth the price, in my opinion. One of the caretakers told us about the giraffes while we stood on the balcony feeding them pellets. It’s obviously a great photo op, but we learned a lot as well. For example, twiga means giraffe in Swahili. There are three types: Masai, Reticulated, and Rothchild’s. They are identified by the patterns of their coats. They sleep for only thirty minutes a day. The spiny acacia thorns do injure their tongues while they eat, but a natural antiseptic in their mouths keeps the wounds free of infection. There is a lot more to learn about giraffes, so I suggest you stop by if you find yourself in the neighborhood.

Safari Q and A

After our brief stop in Nairobi it was time to take off on safari. I was really nervous about it, as I’d literally spent months researching the best option, sending emails, and comparing reviews. We were traveling on a fairly tight budget, which meant the majority of options were out of our league. In the end, due to a combination of luck and planning, we had a fantastic time. Here are a few questions I can answer based on my own experience.

1. Kenya or Tanzania?

It is much cheaper to safari in Kenya than Tanzania. Much of this is due to the fact that Tanzanian National Park fees are much higher. The Masai Mara is also easier to access by car than the Serengeti, which often requires flights or extremely long drives. Both parks share essentially the same ecosystem. We saw a great variety of wildlife during our tour, including the Big Five. For these reasons, the Masai Mara is a better bet for budget-conscious travelers.

2. Overlanding or Not?

As soon as we arrived in Kenya, the tank-sized overland vehicles became a common sight (we befriended a former driver who insisted we didn’t refer to them as trucks). I’d read a lot about companies like Dragoman and Oasis and heard positive feedback from friends and fellow travelers. It seems like a great idea, especially for people looking for longer, multi-country journeys and/or camaraderie. We ultimately decided not to overland, since we preferred a more independent schedule. The other detractor again was the budget. We had been eying an enticing overland trip that also included Uganda and Malawi. The price seemed incredible, that is until we realized that it didn’t include most of the safaris and additional excursions. If you choose this option, obviously be sure to read the fine print so you really know how much it will cost.

3. What’s a “Joining Safari”?

After much research, this was the option that we eventually chose. We went with a company called Bison Safaris, which we found on this website . They offer a five-day safari that includes Masai Mara, Hell’s Gate, Lake Naivasha, and Lake . They offer a five-day safari that includes Masai Mara, Hell’s Gate, Lake Naivasha, and Lake Nukuru, all for the cut-bottom price of $510/person. This deal seemed too good to be true and we became increasingly worried when some of our new expat pals claimed they’d never heard of the company and began making anxious phone calls on our behalf. However, it all turned out to be legitimate.

Basically, a joining safari is a small conglomerate of budget companies who lump their clients together. Depending on your itinerary and length of trip, you might find yourself shuffled between vans and groups. We began with a nice Romanian family for the first few days, briefly gained an Egyptian non-profit worker who was living in the South Sudan, and finally ended up with a German super-traveler and Colombian diplomat. Not bad!

We lucked out, since our van was never too crowded and we got to meet a ton of interesting people. Additionally, we had the same driver for the entire duration of our safari. If you go with this option, I’d definitely advise asking the company about the maximum number of people in each group, as well as if you can stay with the same guide.

Day One: Hells’ Gate National Park

We were picked up from our hotel early in the morning and taken to a bland office building somewhere in downtown Nairobi to pay. We were supposed to be traveling with the Romanian family, but since they had missed their connecting flight, it was just us for day one. They had also shuffled the itinerary around a bit, so we climbed in the van and were off to Hell’s Gate National Park. Our driver/guide Lawrence turned out at being a master at spotting game and his insane driving served us well inside the borders of the National Parks. On the highway, however, he was a complete maniac. I held my breath as he stomped on the gas, swerving between trucks, buses, livestock, and pedestrians. We had a brief stop overlooking the Great Rift Valley to catch our breath. Did you know that it stretches 6000 kilometers all the way from the Middle East to Mozambique? I sure didn’t! After driving for several hours, we arrived at Hell’s Gate National Park. This place is incredibly unique because you are allowed to access it on foot or bicycle…all by yourself!

Lawrence booted us out of the van and the kindly rangers helped us to find and adjust bikes. They were quite decrepit, but we were so excited to see the animals that we didn’t care one bit. We left from the Elsa Gate around 10 am, pedaling along the gravel road. It was a genuine thrill to be in the midst of real African wildlife. Reddish rock formations encircled the plain and in the dry scrub in between we saw herds of zebra, warthogs, baboons, giraffes, and birds of pray.

The 8-kilometer ride to the Gorge Point Ranger Station took us around one hour (perhaps a bit more, as we stopped so often to take pictures). Once there, we parked our bikes and begin our hike into the canyon. Since the area is on Masai land and there is a danger of flash flooding, it is recommended that you take one of the local guides to lead you around (though technically, you don’t have to). We went with Option A, paying around Ks 500 (USD 10) per person for the “long” 2-hour hike. Our guide was a statuesque man named George, who helped us along when the terrain got tough and told us about the seasons, wildlife, and the local Masai Community.

We climbed down into the gorge, which becomes a river during the rainy season. Gradually, the path becoming narrower, before eventually reaching a dead end at “the Devil’s Bedroom”; a caul-du-sac of impenetrable striated walls.

George led us back to the ranger station where we bought some water and continued began our return journey. The ride back wasn’t nearly so romantic. We were hot, tired, and the road was slightly uphill. Passing cars blew dust in our faces and the ill-fitting bicycles were becoming painful. But we were in Africa and your complaints can only hold so much weight as you pedal past a wild zebra!

Days 2 Masai Mara National Reserve

The next day we left our hotel near Lake Naivasha with Lawrence, stopping at a dusty junction to pick up the Romanian family. They were a couple from Transylvania who’d previously visited Kenya and had brought their teenage son back to see the animals. February marks the height of Kenya’s dry season, with rains not expected to arrive until April. It had been a particularly difficult drought and throughout our excursion we saw the emaciated corpses of cattle littering the roadside. The lack of water has devastating consequences: the Masai depend on the cattle for their livelihood and when they begin losing part of their herd to the drought, it’s difficult for them to cope. The ecosystem also suffers, as they begin driving their animals into the national park. There is a fine for doing so, but for many Masai, it’s worth the risk to protect their livestock

Two thirds of the journey to Masai Mara was made on a rough gravel road, full of pits and potholes. Lawrence was undeterred and sped on as usual, flying around the curves while fielding calls on his cell phone. We distracted ourselves by chatting with the Romanians. About halfway there we got a flat tire and in spite of the remote area we were able to limp into a auto shop. A group of young men materialized, all wearing jackets, sweatpants, and beanies despite the scorching heat. They changed the tire with ease and we were back on the road.

We stayed at a place called the Lenchada Tourist camp, a series of canvas tents with attached bathrooms and a small bar/cafeteria. The running water didn’t always work and the power was shut off at 10 pm, but it was certainly pleasant enough. We struck up a conversation with a Masai man from the neighboring village, who was grazing a mother and her young calf on the hotel grounds. Incidentally, he was also named George. (Most Masai have converted to Christianity and taken biblical names).

Just before dusk, we headed out on an evening game drive. The scenery was spectacular: green sloping hills, acacia, grazing zebra, gazelle, wildebeest, and water buffalo.

After dinner, we reunited with George around the campfire and bought him a drink (Red Bull). He told us some interesting things about the Masai, particularly his time in the bush, which is a rite of passage for all young men. In order to join their peers on the journey, they must first undergo a circumcision ceremony (without any type of pain relief and in front of the entire village, I might add).
Giraffe smooch!Giraffe smooch!Giraffe smooch!

She was an attractive young lady...Nairobi Giraffe Center
If they make it through without flinching or showing any sign of discomfort, they can officially embark on the journey to become a warrior. The training involves a lengthy amount of time spent roaming away from the village, at first with a few of their elders and later on their own. They learn how to forage, use weapons, track, and hunt. The culmination of their experience involves killing a male lion with spears. George proudly pulled up the corner of his shuka and showed us a thick scar on his shin. “From the lion's claws!” He exclaimed, gesturing to indicate how the cornered animal had slashed him.

After talking for awhile about his life, George asked us about America. What is it like? I wasn’t sure how to describe American culture, so I decided to take the easy route by discussing fast food. I told him that McDonald’s was really popular.

“McDonald’s?”

“Yes, you know, hamburgers and stuff.”

“I don’t know.”

“Americans like fast, easy food that they can get in their cars. Usually, it’s unhealthy, like pizza.”

“Pizza?”

"Kind of like Italian food...bread, cheese, pepporoni?

"Okay..."

At first I thought George was just pulling my leg, but he really didn’t know what I was talking about. Having spent his entire life on the reserve, he hadn’t even visited Nairobi and he certainly hadn’t eaten a Big Mac. The Masai men actually subsist primarily on milk and blood (yes, blood). The latter they get by cutting the vein of the cow and collecting the blood in a bowl. They believe this gives them the strength to run swiftly and maintain their energy on the move. They’ve been doing it for centuries and considering that they have the stamina to travel miles in dry, rough conditions, I guess it works. All I could really say is, “Sure, Americans like cows too.”

To be continued...


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